A coming-of-age debut novel unspools through the correspondence between a young teenager and his older sister, who is in a juvenile detention program.
In this compelling and unsettling YA tale, 17-year-old Kelly Cantz has been sent to a school for troubled girls in the Idaho mountains, leaving her 13-year-old brother, Sammy, back in Missouri. He is left to cope alone with his parents’ crumbling marriage and their obsessive worry that he’ll follow in his sister’s footsteps and use drugs. In letters that take place over nearly a year, the siblings tell each other what is happening in their lives. Sammy writes about the minefield of early adolescence, dysfunctional adults (including one twisted teacher), bullying and sexually predatory older teens, and the outlets he finds in dark poetry and his growing prowess in football. Rebellious Kelly’s reports on her school experiences in the mountains are scathing, but her concern for her brother is evident, as is her alarm when his peripheral involvement with her unsavory former high school friends becomes something more. Although the flawed adults are observed only through the siblings’ eyes, the parents have between-the-lines dimension. While believably self-absorbed in their marital conflict, they offer moments of parental connection (between Dad’s absenteeism and Mom’s suffocating anxiety). But they are oblivious to what Kelly knows is the real danger: Sammy’s attraction to one of the older girls, leading to a series of shocking incidents—involving a secret cave, self-mutilation, and teen pornography—that will change both siblings’ lives. That these events don’t feel gratuitous is due to Eliot’s skill in building up to them and to the achingly realistic voices revealed through Kelly’s and Sammy’s letters, reflecting the teens’ angst, anger, betrayals, triumphs, new insights, and the subtle changes that take place with the passage of time and their life experiences. It is that authenticity that makes it gut-wrenching when the author has Sammy discover the extent of Kelly’s transgressions and seemingly lose the only person he can trust.
A well-told, unsparing, and increasingly disturbing journey through unmoored adolescence.